Did a Terrorist Attack Just Save the Iranian Regime?
After a strike on a military parade, nationalist sentiment is on the rise—and not a moment too soon for a government that was facing deepening discontent.
On Saturday morning, Zari, a 42-year-old homemaker, was in a food market in Shiraz, Iran. She was going about her daily investigation into ever-changing prices on basic goods and trying to figure out how to make her money stretch to buy the groceries she needed to feed her three teenage sons.
She came home having spent the same amount as the week before but with a far lighter bag of food. As she angrily rearranged her groceries in her kitchen, she called her sister. It wasn’t long before she was cursing the government for its mismanagement of the economy, which was making life harder and harder. Such calls to her sister were regular, and her litany of frustrations had grown longer since the Iranian currency plummeted to record lows in July. Interrupting her list about halfway through, Zari’s sister told her to turn on the television. There had been a terrorist attack in the country.
Just moments before, at least five gunmen had opened fire at a routine military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, the capital of Iran’s Khuzestan province. The terrorists, whom Iran’s official news agency identified as being separatists “supported by the Arab reactionary countries” had killed at least 24 people, including a 4-year-old boy, and wounded nearly 70. By the latest count, 11 of those killed included young soldiers serving their mandatory two-year military service.
Zari’s body froze. “The groceries no longer mattered to me,” she said by phone. “I just looked at the news, flipping between channels on state television and the satellite stations. I saw pictures of all those young men scared as they were under attack. My boys will be in military services in just a few years. What if it had been one of them? I thought at that point, ‘We really are under attack.’”
Zari’s reaction was echoed by others, including those who have been critical of the regime’s handling of the economy. Reza, a 52-year-old engineer from the city of Isfahan, has a daughter studying in the United States. He ended up in the hospital this July from dangerously high blood pressure after the initial plunge of the currency. “Every hour of the day, I’m racking my brain trying to figure out how to make sure my daughter can finish her studies abroad, and I blamed the government for everything,” he said. “But with Saturday’s attack,” he continued, “it’s not just about the economy anymore for me. It’s now about safeguarding the country.”
Like it would many other people around the world, the terrorist attack has rallied Iranians around the flag. Over the past two decades, Iranian nationalism had already been growing in response to a regime that has constantly foregrounded Islam instead. The trend toward patriotism has recently been pushed even further by the ever-expanding proxy war with Saudi Arabia, which has fueled anti-Arab sentiment in the country. Since the early 2000s, there has been a spike in pre-Islamic Persian names for babies. The farvahar—a symbol of Zoroastrianism, which predates Islam—has become a popular tattoo as well as pendant sold across the country. And there has been a resurgence of interest in pre-Islamic Persian history, fueling domestic tourism to archaeological sites. The regime, staunchly Islamist though it may be, has sought to capitalize on this rise in nationalism, including by draping large national flags along highways and bridges (a mainstay of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency from 2005 to 2013, along with his notion of “Iranian Islam”).
The attack on Saturday also hit a particular nerve because so many of the dead were conscripts. In a country in which all young men must eventually serve in the military, their deaths have been met with empathy across all sectors of society, regardless of people’s individual opinions on politics or the regime.
Making the deaths all the more poignant, the strike in Ahvaz came on an especially meaningful day—the 38th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which the military parade there was meant to commemorate. Although much of the rest of the world has moved on from that conflict, it had a profound impact on the two countries involved and on the geopolitics of the Middle East. The war lasted for eight long years, and it involved bloody trench warfare and the use of chemical and nerve agents. “The Iran-Iraq War was World War III,” said Morteza Sarhangi, a writer and leader of one of the government’s main cultural centers, Howzeh Honari.
He’s not wrong. The United States and European powers—with the help of nearly all the Arab states—provided weapons to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the war in the hopes of undermining the new revolutionary regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. West Germany even helped build factories in the Iraqi cities of Samarra and Fallujah to manufacture chemical bombs, which would be dropped on battlefields in Iran, civilian towns such Sardasht and Marivan, and Iraq’s own Kurdish town of Halabja. Meanwhile, the United States also covertly sold weapons to Iran (in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal) to prolong the war of attrition between the two Middle Eastern neighbors and render them weak in the new post-1979 geopolitical order.
In the end, the war (in which both sides declared victory) helped Iran’s nascent revolutionary government, which had only just ousted the U.S.-backed shah and declared Iran a nation independent from both American and Soviet meddling, consolidate its power. But, more importantly, the war became the lens through which an entire generation of Iranians came to understand the consequences of such a declaration of independence.
Those eight long years, with nearly 500,000 casualties, brought home the concept of realpolitik. “Just because we were no longer willing to be the lackeys of the United States … [the United States] made sure to isolate our country and to make us their No. 1 enemy in the region,” a captain in the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said. Even though “other countries in the region have trained and funded terrorists that have attacked the United States,” he continued, “they’re never the target of American ire because their rulers bend to America’s whims.” This is something the older generation understands, he said, “but young people today had a hard time believing that, and that’s our fault for not being able to communicate this to them.”
A majority of Iran’s population of 80 million is under the age of 35. Most of these Iranians do not remember the 1979 revolution or the war. And explaining the meaning of those events to them has confounded the regime, which has debated how to win over increasingly dissatisfied groups, such as young people, women, and workers. These debates took on more importance after the massive protests of 2009, the largest since the 1979 revolution, in which chants of “Down with the dictator” were heard on the streets for the first time in 30 years.
Facing a crisis of legitimacy, regime media producers have worked in earnest to reframe the Islamic Republic, and especially the IRGC, as a nationalist force that defends all Iranians, not just those it deems proper Islamic citizens. Given that such efforts have come with a heavy dose of oppression, they have mostly fallen on deaf ears. Yet, there have been moments, especially as the Arab Spring gave way to civil war and the specter of opposition forces propped up by the United States became a reality, that Tehran has been successful in positioning the IRGC as a national symbol that protects Iran from falling to the same fate as its neighbors. With the Iranian economy tanking in recent months, however, and with nationwide protests aimed at the regime and its mismanagement gaining steam, this support was waning again.
The attack on Saturday has provided a golden opportunity for the regime to connect the dots for the public. Helping things along is that the news of the attack came at the same time as reports that Saudi Arabia had backed the armed Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to foment discord inside Iran. Perhaps even more striking, U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, spoke the same day at a large MEK conference in New York City, where he called for regime change in the country.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quick to jump on the news. The attack in Ahvaz, he said, “is a continuation of the plots of the regional states that are puppets of the United States, and their goal is to create insecurity in our dear country.” State television reports, meanwhile, have highlighted the link between U.S. activities in the region and officials from the Trump administration speaking favorably about the MEK. On social media, Iranian users are circulating memes and text messages that blame U.S.-backed actors in the region for the tragedy and that lambast the MEK for being traitors to their country.
“I thought with the Iran deal we could finally be welcomed back in the international community and the situation inside the country could approve,” said Hamid, a 25-year-old engineer who is currently serving his two-year mandatory military service with the IRGC in Tehran. “But Trump and the Saudis want to provoke us into a war.” And, for him, that changes things. “I never thought of myself as a nationalistic person. I always just wanted to finish this service and go continue my studies abroad. But now I can sense that they’re waging war against us on multiple levels, including economically, and I will defend my country.” Although it is hard to gauge how far such sentiments reach, there has been a notable increase in nationalist sentiments from Iranians online and an uptick in anti-Arab, especially anti-Gulf and anti-Saudi, rhetoric since the weekend.
For Zari, the thought of her three sons fighting in a war has kept her up in the nights since Saturday’s attack. “We struggled economically during the eight-year war and with the sanctions afterwards,” she said. “I had hope things would change, but now I see the U.S. doesn’t want to leave us alone.” And so, she said, “To hell with it if the prices keep going up. I’ll grit my teeth like I did before, but I’m not here waiting for some foreign power to dictate who will rule us. We’re an independent country.”